Preview: KU looks to improve postseason positioning against Baylor

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson shoots during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against BYU Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Fighting to stay in the top four in its own league is a rarity for a Bill Self-coached Kansas team.

Self quite famously led the Jayhawks to 17 regular-season Big 12 Conference titles (one was vacated by October’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process ruling). Until Tuesday night, meanwhile, he had only lost 17 total games at Allen Fieldhouse.

Then KU fell 76-68 to Big 12 newcomer BYU. After leading by 12 points early in the second half and six points with seven minutes to go, the Jayhawks were outgunned down the stretch as they shot just 27.6% after the break.

That loss — KU’s first home loss after leading at halftime in 72 tries — dropped the Jayhawks to 9-6 in conference play, meaning that they have matched their greatest total of league losses under Self from the 2018-19 and 2020-21 seasons, but also that as in those seasons they are now staring down an underwhelming league finish.

KU sits tied for third in the conference and will be eliminated from the prospect of sharing the league title with either another loss or another Houston win.

“We’re not putting (our) motivation on winning the league,” Self said Thursday. “What does Houston got to do, win one game? … We’re not going to win the league.”

In the long term, they’ll aim for the best possible NCAA Tournament seed; in the short term, the Jayhawks will hope to stay within the top four in their conference due to the revised format of the Big 12 tournament.

“Obviously we don’t want to play on Wednesday,” center Parker Braun said. “We’d rather play Thursday and just play three days in a row rather than four. We can’t really bank on anyone losing or winning.”

Yes, because there are more teams in the league this year, the Big 12 now grants two byes to its top four teams as the remaining 10 have to play at least once in the opening two days of the tournament. With three games to go, eight teams sit at or within two games of KU’s nine-win mark. Considering that the Jayhawks now play two of the league’s best and their in-state rival, the double-bye setup is far from assured.

The path to securing it — and earning some valuable pre-tournament rest in March for a team that has struggled with quick turnarounds all season — begins Saturday at noon with a rematch against No. 15 Baylor at newly opened Foster Pavilion.

The Jayhawks beat the Bears at Allen Fieldhouse without Kevin McCullar Jr. or Jamari McDowell on Feb. 10 in an odd game that saw KU generally lock down BU’s high-powered offense with 21 forced turnovers and lead by 11 points with six minutes to go, but also commit a baffling series of blunders to nearly throw away the lead entirely. Dajuan Harris Jr. returned from an ankle injury to hit a contested late-clock floater with under two minutes to go, and KU left Ja’Kobe Walter and Jayden Nunn open for potential game-tying 3s, but both missed.

“This is probably the least happy I’ve been after a win because that’s not how you play basketball, and that’s certainly not the intellect in which you’re supposed to play it,” Self said afterward.

KU turned around after that victory and got blown out on the road by Texas Tech, then strung two wins together before Tuesday’s shock loss. Baylor beat Oklahoma and West Virginia by double digits, suffered narrow losses to ranked BYU and Houston, then most recently beat TCU on the road 62-54 on Monday.

Walter and Yves Missi had 16 points apiece, while Jalen Bridges added 15 more, and point guard RayJ Dennis had nine points, nine rebounds and nine assists in a game that was not as close as the score indicated.

“They played zone for 40 minutes, basically,” Self said. “I think we’ll go down there and see a lot more zone.”

The Bears continue to play without injured Langston Love, a double-digit scorer off the bench who missed two weeks of action. He returned against BYU on Feb. 20 but hasn’t played since.

It seemed a virtual certainty that KU would be without McCullar against Baylor, and perhaps they would even lose him for the rest of the season, a possibility to which Self had repeatedly alluded.

However, Self said Thursday that McCullar is “doing better” and could even have a chance to play Saturday if he was able to participate fully in practice each of the previous two days.

“I think he’s gaining on it and hopefully we can get him back out there,” Self said.

No. 15 Baylor Bears (20-8, 9-6 Big 12) vs. No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks (21-7, 9-6 Big 12)

• Foster Pavilion, Waco, Texas, 12 p.m.

Broadcast: ABC

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Keep an eye out

In his head: Hunter Dickinson, a 72.7% free-throw shooter his final year at Michigan, entered Tuesday shooting 69.2% on just 78 attempts all season. He increased his number of attempts by nearly 20% when he went to the line 15 times against BYU but saw his percentage dramatically decline as he shot just 6-for-15 — nine misses in an eight-point loss. After the game, he admitted he had gotten in his own head down the stretch. It was a brutal display for a player who has described himself as a clutch performer, and often with good reason — he hit a game-winner against TCU, for example, and even in the midst of his dreadful free-throw spell hit a game-tying corner 3 late after going just 2-for-25 from beyond the arc in his last 12 games. He’ll look to maintain his composure better in the inevitable close games KU will play in the weeks ahead.

Two steps back: Nick Timberlake appeared to be at the height of his powers — at least by the standards of this season — after KU’s win over Texas last weekend. He had played efficiently, chipped in on defense, matched a season high with 13 points and of course got one massive highlight-reel alley-oop dunk. It was the latest above-average showing from a player who appeared to be growing into a starting role in McCullar’s absence. But against BYU, he was glaringly inefficient as he shot 1-for-9 from the field; granted, two of his misses came on late desperation 3-point attempts, but part of the reason why they were so desperate was that he had missed a jumper with KU trailing 71-66 and just over a minute remaining. He still had hustle plays and solid moments, and unlike the rest of the team, made his free throws. But it was a significant downturn in a promising arc.

Hidden talent: Self has said that he has been surprised by how good of a rebounder Johnny Furphy has been as a freshman. Against BYU, one of the best rebounding teams in the Big 12, Furphy put that skill on display once again. Since entering the starting lineup, he is averaging 6.9 boards per game, which if extrapolated to an entire season would rank in the top 10 in the conference. He continues to find ways to make an impact when his shot isn’t falling (which it really hasn’t for most of February) and has even begun to dribble-drive more often, demonstrating potential for additional growth by the end of the year.

Off-kilter observation

Kansas assistant Joe Dooley was the head coach of a Florida Gulf Coast team that lost to Baylor 81-72 in 2016.


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